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Uganda: Museveni, ministers cling onto social media despite ban by his government

President Museveni and half of his 28-member Cabinet have remained active on social media despite the government's official ban on the micro-blogging sites.

Only 10 of them had neither tweeted nor posted anything on Facebook by 4pm yesterday, 27 days after the government shut down the Internet and social media on January 11, 2021.

Five full ministers - Attorney General William Byaruhanga, Adolf Mwesige (Defence), John Byabagambi (Karamoja Affairs), Raphael Magyezi (Local Government) and Hilary Onek (Refugees) - could not be found on either Twitter or Facebook.

It was unclear if they use different names or never subscribed to the platforms.

The government through the communications sector regulator, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), blocked social media citing security reasons while President Museveni accused Facebook of being undemocratic.

This followed Facebook's decision in early January 2021 to take down the accounts of more than 50 pro-Uganda government campaigners it accused of "Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour".

Two days before the January 14 poll, UCC executive director Irene Sewankambo ordered telecom companies and Internet service providers to "immediately suspend any access, use, direct or otherwise, of all social media platforms and online messaging applications over your network until further notice".

The telecoms and Internet service providers acted promptly, blocking access to Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, Youtube, and other social media sites.

But when the government restored Internet services on January 18, two days after President Museveni was declared winner of the presidential elections, many Ugandans began accessing social media through virtual private network (VPN).

UCC itself, without reversing or revising the ban, resurfaced on social media under the cover of darkness and at 9.48pm on January 20 tweeted that "content development support programme - supporting the audio-visual industry in Uganda" in apparent reference to a new programme.

A one @stephentugu in a rejoinder noted: "It's insane how someone violates their own deeds." Another person, using the handle @rogersKalemera, tweeted that "social media is still off as per the government [ban] other than those that are using VPN. But how is UCC accessing Twitter?"

The communications regulator did not respond or explain its access to the site.

Our examination of the accounts of Cabinet ministers, three key government entities and that of government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo shows that these users combined had tweeted and retweeted 823 times.

They also posted a total of 119 messages on Facebook between January 11, when social media was blocked, to 4pm yesterday.

Nearly half of the tweets (359) were by the Ministry of Health, the Government of Uganda and Uganda Media Centre (UMC), a government communication-clearing house.

Of the 464 tweets by Cabinet ministers and other senior government official, 358 were by UMC executive director Mr Ofwono Opondo alone.

He did not receive or return our repeated calls last evening.

The most active minister on twitter during the still obtaining social media ban is Frank Tumwebaze of Gender, Labour and Social Development followed by his Works counterpart, Gen Katumba Wamala and newcomer twitter user Elly Tumwine (Security) while ICT Minister Judith Nabakooba, who doubles as the government spokesperson, ranks fourth.

Gen Tumwine joined twitter during the ban, on January 20, 2021, and has since tweeted and retweeted 19 times on security and other political matters.

We picked on the ministers because they are responsible for the country's policy direction and would be expected to lead by example and comply with government ban on social media.

Asked why Cabinet ministers including herself were active on micro-blogging sites in defiance of official ban, and whether they were navigating their way through VPN, Ms Nabakooba said:

"I am not there [on social media].

"Somebody else is managing it (my account). I can only access the Internet when I reach the office."

The shutdown of social media has significantly affected Ugandans by denying advertising platforms for small business, deprivation of cheaper social and family networking as well as international communication.

Ms Joan Nabuma, a kiosk owner in Kansanga, a Kampala suburb, said: "it is ironic that our leaders in government block us from using things they are using. You wonder how they even expect us to receive the messages they post on their social media accounts when we have been barred from accessing them."

The executive director of the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI), Prof Pontiano Kaleebu, told this newspaper last week that the Internet and social media shutdown affected testing for, and transmission of, Covid-19 results.

Whereas the East African Affairs Minister Kahinda Otafire is quiet on Twitter, he has within the social media ban period posted messages on Facebook at 22 times.

Most of the messages shared by the ministers and government agencies relate to their official work or retweets of work initiated by counterparts, which appears calculated to expand the reach of information from the government to the citizens, most of whom without access to VPN email in information blackhole.

The government has also blocked regular access to VPN and Youtube, meaning users in Uganda are currently unable to install the former on their mobile phone handsets or access the latter.

Ministers and government spokespersons have lately shared information about the latest acquisition of the second Airbus A330neo last week and post-election security.

President Museveni, in reply to Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli's congratulatory messaging, tweeted at 4.48pm on January 18, 2021 responded to thank Mr Magufuli and Tanzanians, promising continued cooperation on business and politics.

Mr Museveni or his courtier also announced his last Thursday's address, in which he proclaimed return of semi-candidate classes to school on March 1, on his Twitter handle, suggesting social media use has become unavoidable for government and its executives.

Mr Julius Mucunguzi, the head of communication at the Office of the Prime Minister, declined to explain how the social media accounts of Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda have remained active despite the ban, referring further inquiries to the ICT minister.

State ICT Minister Peter Ogwang, who is also using social media, on January 21 threatened action against individuals circumventing the blockade using VPN in a manner suggesting government official are having an exemption under a catch-all policy.

The ban also affects law-abiding citizens who paid Over-The-Top (OTT) tax, introduced in May 2018, to enjoy social media service while tax avoiders can access the micro-blogging sites as long as they have Internet connection.

Ministers were contacted declined to say whether they are using VPN or not and whether they are playing by a rule different from that for citizens.

Mr Robert Kirenga, the executive director of the National Coalition of Rights Defenders-Uganda (NCHRD), said the government's reason of internet shutdown and refusal to restore social media access was not justified.

"In whatever justification they gave, whether it was national security, there was a mechanism they would (have) used to ensure (peace), after all they had deployed troops all over... even if I were to incite (people) using internet to go the street, which streets would they go to when government had deployed hundreds of foot soldiers?" he said.

Facebook ban

On January 7, Facebook shut a slew of accounts belonging to Ugandan government officials accused of seeking to manipulate public debate ahead of elections.

"This month, we removed a network of accounts and pages in Uganda that engaged in CIB (Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour) to target public debate ahead of the election," Facebook's head of communication for sub-Saharan Africa, Kezia Anim-Addo, said in an email.

This article was published by the Monitor.


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